Sharon to remain in induced coma until Monday

Israeli PM 'improves', but the political establishment prepares for elections without his formidable presence
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The Independent Online

Doctors will start bringing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon out of his medically induced coma tomorrow, provided there are no changes in his condition, hospital officials said today.

Dr Shlomo Mor-Yosef said Sharon remained in critical condition, but his vital signs, including intracranial pressure, were normal.

"His condition is still serious but stable, and there is improvement in the CT picture of the brain," he told reporters outside Hadassah Hospital.

Bringing Sharon out of the coma is an important step toward assessing the extent of brain damage he suffered from a massive stroke last Wednesday.

Doctors had planned to begin reducing the level of sedatives that induced the coma today, but decided to wait another day after performing a new brain scan.

Israel has been holding its breath since the 77-year-old Mr Sharon was rushed to hospital last Wednesday. After the political upheavals caused by his decisions to clear the Gaza Strip of Jewish settlers, then to break away and form his own party shortly before elections, the country is facing his sudden departure from the scene.

The Prime Minister's aides, Israeli politicians and diplomats continue to work on the assumption that even if he recovers, his political career is over. Mr Sharon's deputy, Ehud Olmert, will be the acting Prime Minister until elections scheduled for 28 March, a date set well before Mr Sharon's illness. This weekend he was fast emerging as the runaway favourite to lead Kadima, the party Mr Sharon formed when he walked out of Likud two months ago.

A poll on Friday showed that under Mr Olmert, Kadima would still be the biggest single party if voting took place today, with 40 Knesset seats - only two less than it would have secured under Mr Sharon. The poll put Labour on 18 seats and Likud on 13.

While Kadima's showing may well be artificially inflated by what is in effect a sympathy vote for Mr Sharon as he lies fighting for his life in the Hadassah hospital, it has helped to reinforce Mr Olmert's standing as the man best placed to lead the party into an election. Most of the leading ex-Likud figures who joined Kadima are rallying round him. Mr Olmert, an experienced 60-year-old former Likud hawk who did much to foster Jewish settlement in occupied Arab East Jerusalem when he was the city's mayor, has nevertheless emerged as a more doveish figure in recent years, going further than most Sharon allies in suggesting that disengagement from Gaza could be followed by further large-scale withdrawals from the West Bank.

One of his most urgent tasks will be a decision on whether to allow voting to take place in East Jerusalem during the Palestinian parliamentary elections, scheduled for 25 January. Although Israel permitted voting in the city in the previous Legislative Council elections in 1996, the Sharon government had threatened to forbid it this time in protest at the participation -and potentially strong electoral showing - of Hamas. From his prison cell yesterday Marwan Barghouti, the popular "young guard" Fatah activist who heads the candidates' list, said that Mr Sharon's illness should not be allowed to delay the Palestinian elections. The US has made it clear it wants the elections to go ahead on schedule.

Although Mr Olmert is relatively low down in the ratings of Israelis' declared preferences as Prime Minister, most observers argue that his period of incumbency could rapidly raise them. One of Israel's leading political analysts, Hebrew University's Yaron Ezrahi, said last week that he thought the three main groupings would end up roughly the same size. He thought a Kadima-Labour dominated coalition was the most likely election outcome " under present conditions".

But he warned this could change - in favour of Binyamin Netanyahu as leader of Likud - if the security situation deteriorated. "If Palestinian violence looks round the corner or there is an actual escalation, there could be a move to the right which would indeed help Likud."